And so, after almost a year-and-a-half, Droughtlander has finally come to an end, and the Starz drama Outlander Season 5 “Fiery Cross” premier episode dropped last week. And I have opinions. For a bit of recap, this series is based on the wildly popular book series, OUTLANDER, by Diana Gabaldon. The Fiery Cross is the 5th book in the series, published in 2005, and I’ll admit, it was my least favorite. Very long, tedious in description, it just dragged. As a matter of fact, I didn’t finish it on first reading and never picked it, or the following books, up again until the television series was about to premier six years ago. I started again with book 1, which I’ve read many times, and worked my way through to Book 8, Written in My Own Heart’s Blood, which came out in 2016. Book 9 is possibly going to come out by the end of 2020, but not sure. And the author has said that Book 10 will be the final book of the series, 30+ years after Book 1 was originally published. Briefly, Outlander is a book about a WW2 era combat nurse, Claire, who touches a standing stone in the Scottish Highlands in the 1940’s and suddenly lands in the 1740’s. Romance, drama, war, bloodshed and heartache ensue. It’s a genre defying series because while there is a lot of sex and romance, it’s not a romance. While there is time-travel, it’s not science fiction or fantasy. It’a historical period piece with lots of romance and some time travel but still very much grounded in reality. I’ve previously written about the sets and story here.
In the story, the main couple, 20th C Claire and her 18th C Scottish warrior husband Jamie, have come to America and settled in the mountains of North Carolina due to a land grant from the Royal Governor William Tryon. The Fiery Cross takes place between 1770 and 1772 – so in the thick of the Colonists unrest and pushing back against the English Crown. Because Claire, and daughter Brianna and son-in-law Roger, are time travelers from the 20th Century, they know what’s to come. So, Jamie has signed a pact with the Royal Governor that in exchange for 10,000 acres in the mountains, he will settle it with Scottish immigrants, all supposedly loyal to the King. He’s walking a tight rope since he also knows the country will break from England and being Scottish, he’s not much of a fan of the Crown anyway. And at some point he knows he’s going to need to switch sides. Okay, lots of exposition, but it sets up the time and place for my review of the sets.
As landowner, Jamie is the leader of all the people he brings in to settle. He’s responsible for them and takes his responsibilities very seriously. It’s a new kind of clan, not of blood but of shared vision for a better life. But it’s a hard life, one of work and deprivation. The location, now called Fraser’s Ridge, is routinely described in the books as remote, with no roads. It takes days to get there from the nearest town, on horseback or wagon.
So, when the Season 5 premier aired and this “Big House” was debuted – I was a little surprised. It’s simply too much. For the story, for the time, for the location. Now, I am not one of those book readers who hates that “she’s too tall and her eyes aren’t whiskey colored” or “he’s too short and his hair isn’t red enough”, etc, etc. I have no problem with creative license and I understand it’s an adaptation. I’m not talking about the color of the walls, but of historical accuracy.
Outlander Big House – exteriors
They show the house substantially built, but with work still to do. And I like that aspect. But, who built this large house? Who paid for it, and the large windows with decorative leaded glass? The Townshend Acts (of “no taxation without representation” fame) instituted a glass tax in 1767, which is one reason Colonial homes have small windows with small panes of glass.
The house is referred to as the “Big House” in the book, but not because it’s actually BIG. I went back and looked in the books for a description:
“They came out of the chestnut grove and into the large clearing where the house stood, solid and neat, its windows glazed gold with the last of the sun. It was a modest frame house, whitewashed and shingle-roofed, clean in its lines and soundly built, but impressive only by comparison with the crude cabins of most settlers.” ©Diana Gabaldon, THE FIERY CROSS.
The production designer is Jon Gary Steele and set decorator Barry Waldo. Steele has done all the seasons through Season 5 and his work has truly been amazing. The Paris sets were astonishingly great. But he doesn’t seem to know how to tamp down his enthusiasm. In the after-show talk by two of the executive producers, they joked that the house was called the Big House, but it wasn’t actually big. But, that Steele made it big anyway. Clearly, there is a desire to make things pretty and eye-catching for audiences. It’s a reason actresses hair usually looks better than it probably did back in the day, or that their complexions look great and teeth aren’t brown. We all like to see pretty. And this house it pretty enough. But it flies in the face of the actual story and of actual history.
They did create this interesting exterior “cross hall” bisecting the main house and the back section. It appears to be the waiting room of sorts for Claire’s surgery. Interesting concept. I’ve never seen anything like it in historical photos, but I like it.
The paint colors, while pleasing and generally historically accurate, don’t seem at all reasonable for the location of the story – how did they paint the house?? Again, it’s not that it’s a yellow/green color versus white in the description. But that’s a lot of paint that had to be hauled in from town in a wagon. And, we have to remember that the other inhabitants of Fraser’s Ridge are living in huts and lean-to’s at this stage. So, they were building this grand house for the Frasers while their own houses and fields were being worked on by whom?
In this episode, Brianna and Roger were finally married and it was a sweet and romantic episode. But, the wedding decorations were a real horror from a cost perspective. Garlands draping the house and stairs? Who’d they call, Ye Olde FTD? Now, I don’t know how festooned weddings were in those days and since the bride and her mother were from the 20th century, I have no problem with little 20th century-isms being slipped in – it’s fun and makes sense to the story. But only if it’s something that could have been done in the time period. If they were uber wealthy, they’d have lots of servants to do their handiwork, but they weren’t. And time was probably the thing that was most valuable to them. Who had time to spend the hours and hours that the garlands and floral displays would have taken – all for one day.
I did like that the set decoration included lots of things like bricks being made, candle making, etc. Everything pretty much had to be made on site.
An aerial shot of the Big House on the Ridge with wedding/gathering guests in tents set up near by.
One of the trickier visual elements of the show that I feel they handled well was the burning, or Fiery, cross itself. In Scottish history, chieftans of clans would light a cross to signal that their men were to assemble for battle. Obviously, given what happened in the 19th and 20th centuries in America, this old custom was bastardized for horrific use and has become a symbol of hatred, racism and terrible fear. But, the book is called The Fiery Cross and the “calling of the men” aspect is an important element of the story. So, the cross made for burning was done in a Celtic Cross style which made the visual element less heart breaking, hopefully. There has been a lot of debate on whether they should have done it at all, but I personally think that history is history and if one can make accommodation for current sensibilities they should be made, but history doesn’t need to be re-written either because terrible people usurped it.
Outlander Big House – Surgery & Kitchen
Claire’s surgery is, of course, an all important set in the Outlander world. One of the bad things about any tv adaptation of a big book series is all that is lost in translation. There’s no way to cram 700-900 pages of dense detail into 13 hours of television. The depth and detail of Claire’s medical work in the series is one of the elements that hasn’t been plumbed as much as it might have been. In an interview with the principal cast members and author Diana Gabaldon at the 92Y, they did say that there is a bigger focus this season on Claire’s medical practice, which is welcome news.
As with the Big House in general, I feel like the surgery set is a little overdone. They’ve only just moved into the house and it seems so full of stuff – where did it all come from? And the amount of glass is kind of mind boggling. However, when I went back and searched for a book description of the surgery, I came to this:
“The sight of the assembled medicines was calming. I touched a jar of anti-louse ointment, feeling a miser’s sense of gratification at the number and variety of bags and jars and bottles. Alcohol lamp, alcohol bottle, microscope, large amputation saw, jar of sutures, box of plasters, packet of cobweb—all were arrayed with military precision, drawn up in ranks like ill-assorted recruits under the eye of a drill sergeant.”©Diana Gabaldon, THE FIERY CROSS.
Alrighty then. The candelier is pretty great though.
I do like the kitchen set a lot. All the earthenware and baskets – timeless. But am not sure about glass windows on interior doors at all. In this image below, it appears that the surgery is off of the kitchen, which makes sense. But swinging glass doors? Hmm… what about patient privacy if nothing else. As a trained 20th century physician, this would have been important for Claire.
Outlander Big House – interiors
I’m assuming as the season progresses we’ll see these other rooms come to completion. But still, way too big. This is what I found written about Jamie’s library:
“There was a small, three-shelf bookcase in Jamie’s study, which held the entire library of Fraser’s Ridge.” ©Diana Gabaldon, THE FIERY CROSS
Somehow I suspect these rooms will hold more than three shelves of books.
This episode featured the wedding of Brianna and Roger. In the book, everyone traveled to a “Gathering” of Scottish clans away from Fraser’s Ridge and it was at the Gathering that Brianna and Roger were married. It was a much less formal affair, but was sanctified by a clergyman who was making the rounds. In the series, they thriftily merged the Gathering with the wedding which was smart writing and made better use of the Big House sets. But…
This was ridiculous. A huge floral garland display with a macrame back drop??? Really? Macrame was actually around in the 18th century and has a long history. It was introduced in the colonies by sailors who would make macrame items to sell. And of course, being from the 1960’s when it was a hot trend, it makes sense in the story to bring in something like this. But, to erect a full-on floral display (when the leaves have already fallen from the trees) and take the time to macrame such a large piece? No way. Not to mention, they used cut lumber and paint to make a platform. As I said above, the time alone for these things would have never been taken in this world and by these characters. It just wasn’t necessary and didn’t really add much in my opinion to the drama of the wedding. A lovely tree as backdrop, the river, or even the front steps of the house would have sufficed.
The wedding dress was lovely. Of course, white weddings didn’t come into vogue until Queen Victoria in the 19th Century, but Brianna was actually from the 20th century, so the desire for a white dress made sense. I’m not a costume expert at all so can’t speak to the style of this dress other than to say they wouldn’t likely have made an impractical white(ish) dress just for the wedding. But it IS lovely. I like the homespun nature of the fabric and the thistle and vine embroidery is quite beautiful.
During the wedding, Claire and Jamie flashed back to their own wedding vows.
Certainly, Claire’s dress was a spectacular, albeit improbable, vision.
Back at The Ridge – wealthy Auntie Jocasta must have hired Ye Olde Mayflower Van Lines to move her pavilion tent and all the assorted camp furnishings, not to mention a retinue of unseen slaves, in order to be comfortable. With all that room in the Big House, they couldn’t find a room for her? The only reason this made sense was so that it was easier for her to have her tryst in the “enchanted woodland palace” with a certain hunky Highlander who needed to keep out of sight.
When Claire and Jamie first arrived at The Ridge, he built this cute cabin, which is now Brianna and Rogers. I liked this set a lot, though I recall other viewers thought it was the Big House. Oh, they had no idea what was to come!
By the way, when Jamie and Claire were still living in the cabin, Brianna was pregnant with the child below… That Big House is not only BIG but a feat of speedy construction and all without power tools. Or roads. Or money.
So, because while I’m complaining and criticizing, I do like to do my due diligence and see what houses did look like in the time period and in the location – well, at least the state, err, colony.
This is the Cupola House in Edenton, NC. “The Cupola House was constructed in 1758 by Francis Corbin, the land agent of the last English Lord Proprietor, Robert Carteret, the Earl of Granville.” via Vintage News. I thought this house is architecturally and scale-wise similar to the Big House. It was a waterfront property of a wealthy man.
This is the “Joseph B. Stone House, also known as Stone-Fearrington House, is a historic home located near Farrington, Chatham County, North Carolina. It dates to the late-18th or early-19th century, and is a two-story, three bay Georgian / Federal style I-house frame dwelling. It has an original one-story rear shed.” via Wikipedia. The house is on the National Register of Historic Places which describes Joseph B Stone as a “successful planter and slave-owner of moderate wealth whose father and grandfather had also been part of the state’s plantation economy.”
I like this house, though, as an inspiration for the big house because of it’s relative smaller size and simple exterior detail including the small glass panes of the 9 over 9 window style on the ground level and smaller windows on the second floor. But still, it took a relatively wealthy man, who lived near the water, to build this house.
Finally, there’s the Joel Lane house which was built in 1769 in Raleigh, NC. Per Wikipedia, “The house is named after Joel Lane, the “Father of Raleigh” and “Father of Wake County.” So, yet another prominent and well-to-do person. The house is also on the National Register of Historic Places.
This is the house that would have made a perfect Big House inspiration. Elegant, picturesque, but small and completely of the period. The architectural plans are even available!
Anyway, I hope this post doesn’t come off as too complain-y. I think Production Designer Jon Gary Steele and his team has done an amazing job on this entire series. I’ve tons of photos throughout my various previous posts. Season 5 is Steele’s last as production designer and I think this was his swan song, in a way. He wanted to go out BIG as it were. Once the story line hit the American shores I figured I’d have very little to cover given the spartan nature of their existence and boy was I wrong. But I know what’s coming in the books and my guess is Steele wanted to ply his craft on more upscale and elegant projects – war time America, with campsites and rustic housing wasn’t exactly Versailles.
Thank you to Outlander-Online for all the screen grabs of the show!
Are you a fan? What are your thoughts? I’d love to hear them!